Understand the perils of high action and 3 ways to recognize it
by James N. McKean

The tolerances in string height, or action as it’s called, are remarkably small. But what is the right height? Every repair person has the standard measurements, but every musician has his or her own particular comfort zone. The trick is to find the comfort zone in a range that is also healthy and to learn how to recognize when things are out of whack.

There’s a well-known conductor who was once a well-known violinist. Why the change? Years ago, he had the fingerboard planed on his violin; but when the newly surfaced board was all polished, the repairman, perhaps in the rush of getting it back out the door, forgot the crucial last step: to lower the top nut to compensate for the reduced thickness of the board. By the time this busy player—he was first violinist in a major quartet—noticed the effect of the resulting too-high E string, it was too late: he’d sustained permanent nerve damage in his little finger.

The difference in height? Less than a millimeter.

The tolerances in string height, or action as it’s called, are remarkably small. But what is the right height? Every repair person has the standard measurements, but every musician has his or her own particular comfort zone. The trick is to find the comfort zone in a range that is also healthy and to learn how to recognize when things are out of whack.

Evaluating String Height

The string height is often the very first thing that the repair staff will check. They’ll take out a small ruler, place it at the end of the fingerboard just inside the top string, either nod or tsk-tsk, and then do the same thing with the bass string. If the action is too high, it can cause physical harm, perhaps not enough to require a change in profession, but enough to cause or exacerbate overuse injuries from having to work too hard to push the strings down. If the action is too low, the strings will buzz when you let go and dig in or when you play pizzicato.

There’s also a psychological effect: when the strings are too low, you get the feeling that the instrument has lost its voice.

The truth is, of course, that action has absolutely nothing to do with how much sound you get. But changing the action does affect the sound. It’s a subtle, but important distinction.

Here’s how it works:

Because the violin has an arched and carved top, loudness and brightness are controlled by the angle of the strings over the bridge. To change the action you raise or lower the bridge. This changes the angle at which the string crosses the bridge, and angle over the bridge does determine the brightness and power. So while a higher action doesn’t, by itself, make for a louder, brighter sound, the act of raising the action does.

Conversely, lowering the action will give you a mellower, more open sound. You’ll think the change is more than it is, because of that additional psychological sense of the strings under your fingertips. Low action, though, is only one reason that your strings might be buzzing. A repair person will check not only the string height, but also the scoop in the fingerboard—the slight hollowing from one end to the other. A fingerboard with very little scoop will give the feeling of low action even when the strings measure the proper height. The repair person will also be checking for wear: ebony is very tough wood, but you’d be surprised at how fast it can erode from constant playing.

And it’s not just your fingers creating potholes—the strings dig grooves into the dense wood. It happens so gradually that you don’t really notice it. Planing the fingerboard is the nastiest job in taking care of a violin, but if anything makes it worth it, it’s seeing that look of surprised joy when the owner plays a few clear notes on that freshly planed fingerboard and hearing the inevitable, “Wow!”

The action is one of those small things that can make a huge difference in the way you play. Here are three things you can keep an eye on so that you’ll have to find some other excuse for exchanging your bow for a baton.

1. Measure the String Height

You’ll need a metric ruler; and since the differences can literally be the width of the line on the ruler, a professional uses a very expensive machinist’s rule graduated in half-millimeters (usually the 15-cm one, made by Starrett, in Athol, Massachusetts). Lay your instrument flat with the bass side toward you and place the ruler against the inside of the upper string half a centimeter in from the end of the fingerboard. The proper measurement at the middle of the upper string is 3.5 mm for a violin, 4.5 for a viola, and 5.5 for a cello. To check the lower string, you place the ruler against the outside of the string, again half a centimeter in from the end. The proper measurement at the middle of the string is 5.5 for a violin, 6.5 for a viola, and 8.5 for a cello. Keep in mind that your measurements are only approximate—it takes an expert to read it exactly. But you can at least get some idea of where you are.

2. Be Aware

Playing the violin is strenuous, but you need to keep in mind the difference between the soreness of normal exertion and real pain. If the pads of your fingertips tingle, if you are losing sensation, if your hand feels abnormally tight or sore, then stop immediately. Take your instrument to your repair person for a check over.

3. Play your Instrument Before Leaving the Shop

And pay particular attention to the comfort. If it doesn’t feel right, say so; your repair person is there to help you but can’t read your mind. “That feels high” is all you need to say. And if it starts feeling too high after you get home and have been playing a while, take it back.

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